Jesus Revolution Presents a Relevant Revival

Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.

On Thursday, February 23, the two-week-long, nonstop religious revival at tiny Asbury University in rural Wilmore, Kentucky saw its official end. Starting with about 20 students who stayed after a regular campus chapel service, tens of thousands had been drawn from across the country in that short span to participate in almost radically simple prayer, singing, and worship. By then, this “awakening” was reported to have spread to several other religious colleges.

In what even the most religiously cynical person must admit is a surprising coincidence, Jesus Revolution — a film exploring the genesis of the Jesus Movement that began among drugged-out hippies in the late 1960s in California and rapidly spread nationally and even internationally — hit the theaters the very next day. It has already quadrupled original box office expectations, grossing almost $33 million in slightly under two weeks. Not bad for a small-budget independent film with only one big-name actor.

Jesus Revolution focuses on the remarkable transformation of the life and ministry of conservative pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), his unlikely partnership with hippy evangelist Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus in The Chosen), and the salvation of Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney) from the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” lifestyle. Laurie, who now pastors a Southern Baptist megachurch, co-authored the book that inspired this movie.

What we see is the genesis of an unplanned spiritual juggernaut that ultimately swept the country and led to the evangelical conversion of millions, including many outside the hippy subculture from which it sprang. This movement was rooted in the plain, unadorned teachings of the Bible and emphasized turning away from sin to uncompromising faith in, submission to, and relationship with Jesus Christ. Its original foot soldiers — often living in communal households, reeking of patchouli oil, and wearing beads and bell bottoms — walked the beaches, boardwalks, and streets of Southern California passing out tracts and inviting people to religious worship, evangelistic services, Bible studies, coffee houses, and baptisms.

This movement jumped over boundaries of race, denomination, political ideology, lifestyle preferences, and social class to unite millions in a common faith as it expanded and, at times, exploded old forms of worship — not to mention that it gave us what we now think of as contemporary Christian music.

This startling evangelical revolution, which focused heavily on disaffected young people destroying themselves in the vain pursuit of liberation and authenticity, emerged in a nation that was deeply divided over everything. The cultural fabric had been seriously weakened by other revolutions, such as sexual, divorce, and the New Left. Intractable conflicts over race and civil rights, feminism, busing, and integration played out on the streets. Headlines regularly highlighted the depredations of violent groups like the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Black Panthers.

Campuses convulsed with protests, culminating in the accidental shooting of four by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970, which is memorialized in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s famous song. In full color, Americans watched young men die in a war that most people had come to doubt we would win. Draft cards were being burned, and thousands of young men fled to Canada. Millions of young people were on drugs, which kept penetrating schools at younger levels. Terrible urban riots marked too many “long, hot summers.” The worst were those following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, which one commentator called “the greatest wave of social unrest since the Civil War.” This came on the heels of over 150 race riots the summer before.

The world seemed to be constantly on the brink of nuclear disaster and was certainly marked by tensions ever-ready to boil over, including the omnipresent Cold War and the expansion of Communism. At the end of the decade, the lunar landing brought Americans together and gave us a much-needed shot of national pride — but not much and not for long.

What would have happened to America but for the Jesus Revolution?

As Josiah (DeVon Franklin), a Time journalist covering the movement, says in the film: “Our country is a dark and divided place, but now there’s hope. And it’s spreading.”

Many historians, including one of my atheist professors in graduate school, argued that the evangelical movement in England in the 1700s had prevented disaster in the face of serious social decline, inoculating it against the curse of the French Revolution. Scholars could make an equally compelling argument for the impact of the Jesus Revolution.

Millions of people were desperate because of the conditions of their own lives or the realistic fears they harbored about their children, families, society, and world. Suddenly, in the midst of their hopelessness, unlikely people were aggressively reaching out to lost and troubled youth and young adults with a saving message expressed in a language they understood.

Untrained newbies barely established in the Christian life themselves worked alongside seasoned believers to share hard truths with lost people. Then, they did whatever it took to help them live out these truths when and if they made the decision to turn from the paths they were on.

Folks on all sides who came together over Jesus had to overcome deeply engrained prejudices, animosities, traditions, and habits. A lot of lives were turned upside down as the walls came down — not instantly or easily, but steadily and surely. This was a new kind of “radical” for a period worn out by radicalism: radical grace, radical forgiveness, radical love, and radical obedience to the plain text of the Bible.

Jesus Revolution does an excellent job portraying all this without schmaltz or gimmicks. I lived through these times and came to Christ myself through the ministry of mostly ex-hippy art students living together in “covenant households.” Watching this film, I found myself reaching for the hanky — not just because of what I was seeing but because of what I was remembering. An old friend and former bandmate of mine told me that he and his wife had the same experience. We know where we would have been but for the Jesus Movement. Before seeing the movie, it seemed odd to me that Kelsey Grammer, a guy about the same age as I am, kept choking up in interviews about this film. It does not seem odd to me now.

Were there serious problems in this movement? Of course, and the film addresses obvious ones: theatrics, an unhealthy obsession with miracles and the spectacular, and too many gifted but untested leaders. Inadequately prepared potential leaders were given too much responsibility too soon, and some fell prey to their own egos and the adulation of admirers, as is evident in the breakdown of Lonnie Frisbee and his relationship with Chuck Smith.

Not addressed in the film was the role of “end times” speculation fueled by events in the Middle East. Students of biblical prophecy in the Jesus Movement interpreted these events to signal an imminent Second Coming, exemplified by the wildly popular 1970 Hal Lindsey book, The Late Great Planet Earth. And in the rush to, as they often said, “make sure there were new wineskins for the new wine” (Mark 2:22; Matthew 9:17), traditional forms of worship and classic hymns were discarded too quickly and thoughtlessly.

Yet millions “saved” through this movement persevered through these difficulties, made corrections, learned, and moved on in the faith. We already see that dynamic in the film in the early stages of the remarkable biography of Greg Laurie, who ultimately became intimately connected with Billy Graham, a powerful senior statesman of evangelicalism who thankfully embraced and supported the Jesus Movement without ignoring its foibles.

So why is this film such an unlikely success? There are no simple answers to questions like this, but I would like to hazard one, which I think is also connected to the remarkable phenomena that just unfolded in rural Kentucky: Jesus Revolution speaks to our nation at a time at least as, if not more, divided, hopeless, and troubled than the era of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison.

Drug epidemics and overdoses rage, penetrating every racial group and social class, while suicides, mental illnesses, and sexual and gender confusion among young people climb. Social media makes us sicker and more divided as people retreat to echo chambers when they are not shouting, denouncing, or “canceling” those with whom they disagree. Educational institutions are increasingly Orwellian ideological training centers rather than places dedicated to communicating true knowledge and literacy. Young people are abandoning religion — not for atheism but for vague personal spirituality that is little more than repackaged ancient paganism. Elites in and out of government keep lying to and manipulating us. We cannot trust our FBI or intelligence services, and now even the venerable CDC has betrayed us.

Trust in our major social institutions has hit new lows, and rightly so. Urban race riots returned with a vengeance in 2020, along with now-chronic violence in cities where woke politicians are no longer able to put public safety ahead of ideology and businesses cannot protect the wares on their shelves from shoplifters and flash mobs.

The international scene looks less stable and more dangerous than it appeared 50 years ago. Will China invade Taiwan? Will Putin or Kim Jong-un launch nukes? Will the brutal invasion of Ukraine draw us into World War III? The reservoirs of strength available to us half of a century ago, which Nixon accurately called “the silent majority” in 1969, are grossly depleted. Our brokenness extends across the political, ideological, and cultural spectrum.

For many of us baby boomers influenced by the Jesus Movement, the hope we felt through our first “born again” president — and then on through the Reagan years and beyond — is now replaced by disappointment, cynicism, and fear. Those of younger generations vacillate between focusing on personal material welfare, comfort, and safety and getting caught up in social justice causes and tribal identities with simplistic views of reality rooted more in slogans and emotions than facts and logic. Historically low marriage and birth rates in our nation are poignant evidence of young people allergic to commitment — but perhaps even more just paralyzed by fear, mistrust, and lack of confidence about the future. At least hippies were searching for “truth”; millennials and beyond increasingly do not believe it exists anywhere beyond their own preferences.

While political and cultural engagement is more vital than ever, no political or cultural fix we can engineer is likely to turn things around. Increasingly, many Americans are coming to believe that, if our civilization is to survive — if Baby Boomers and their children are going to have any hope in a good society for themselves and their progeny — the answer must come from outside of us, from above.

Our hope is not in ballot boxes, lobbying, marches, or media campaigns, important as they are. But the answer will be found on our knees and in face-to-face faith communities across denominations and churches renewed, revitalized, and refreshed by God himself doing for us what we cannot hope to do for ourselves.

Are Jesus Revolution, the overwhelmingly positive public response to it, and events like these recent religious awakenings positive harbingers of a fresh spiritual revitalization of America? Are we in the darkness before a glorious new dawn? Whether you are a person of faith or not, you should hope so. Because if this does not happen — and soon — well, God help us.